The recent college admissions scandal has all the elements of a sensational, headline-grabbing story: Rich and famous parents paying bribes. Coaches encouraging fabricated athletic success. Prestigious colleges caught in the crosshairs. And now the potential of class action lawsuits brought against some of our nation’s most elite universities.
While it’s easy to criticize the parents implicated in the scandal, my hunch is that most of us with kids under 30 have taken at least a few steps down the trail of overparenting. Our excessive parenting may not be as obvious and hopefully isn’t illegal. But a recent national study of over 1,100 parents of 18–28 year-olds showcases the common parental tendency to step in to improve our kids’ options.
According to the study, over three-fourths (76%) of parents remind their adult children of upcoming deadlines. Almost that many (74%) are scheduling doctor’s appointments for their 20-somethings, 15% have called or texted their child to make sure they don’t sleep through a class or test, and 8% have contacted a professor or administrator to discuss their child’s college performance or grades. No wonder colleges today are allocating personnel and developing policies to help extricate parents from their students’ daily rhythms and routines.
Over-involved parents of every stripe tend to focus on two outcomes—academic success and economic success, presuming the former leads to the latter. “Getting ahead” easily becomes an idol. For Christian parents, however, success is not the end goal (even if it is the outcome). Instead, we’re called to a simple-but-challenging counter-narrative: to help our kids grow in Christ, grow in character, and serve God’s kingdom above all else. In other words, our fundamental job is to help them follow and be formed by Jesus.
Even by a secular metric, the data suggests more and more that who our kids are is significantly more important than where they study or work. The psychologist Carol Dweck (who incidentally is a faculty member at Stanford University, one of the schools involved in the scandal) made waves over a decade ago by arguing that a young person’s commitment to hard work is vastly more important than inherent talent. Her research championed the importance of teaching young people a “growth mindset”—the conviction that with ongoing practice and perseverance, you can improve your skills.
Angela Duckworth, the CEO of Character Lab and a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, also finds that when it comes to achievement, effort counts twice as much as inherent ability. Why? Because effort develops grit, and grit is a better predictor of success in a whole host of outcomes than either grades or talent. As Duckworth notes, “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.”
Any parental shortcut (like those in recent headlines) that robs our kids of the chance to grow and build grit is reducing their ability to thrive later. But what does it look like in daily practice to focus on character, endurance, and growth?
While conducting research for a recent book, our team at the Fuller Youth Institute interviewed 75 ethnically diverse parents nominated by their churches for their skill at parenting teenagers and young adults. One of the wise moms we surveyed offered a compelling vision for how to step back from her kids’ choices and increase their sense of agency.
“As my kids turn 18, I tell them, ‘You are an adult, you can start making your own decisions,’” she said. “‘I am here as support. I am here for feedback. I am here for direction. I am here as your library. That is what I am here for, but I want you to start making the decisions on your own.’”
Her 20-something children have sought her library-like advice in moments when they needed it—for example, when learning to navigate a new tax situation or trying to find their first long-term, post-college job. But she’s not regularly intervening or peppering them with advice. In fact, this mom usually makes a choice that’s difficult for even the most loving and well-intentioned parent. She waits for her kids to come to her. She stands by until they ask for the support they need, at which point she helps them identify and evaluate the options ahead.
Embedded in this mom’s parenting posture is a key to effective parenting: shifting away from giving kids answers—an approach that grows out of a success mindset—and instead asking them questions, which in theory grows out of a character-and-growth mindset. As their kids move from adolescence into young adulthood, healthy parents (like those from our study) consistently replace “how to” and “I think” statements with “How would you” and “I wonder” questions.
The same “growth approach” applies to faith development. Our prior Sticky Faith study of youth group graduates revealed the similarity between their conception of faith and what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management.” In other words, young adults often operate from a success-or-failure framework and think they’re supposed to do the “right things” to make God love or like them more. By contrast, we’re called to point young people to a grace-based faith in which our obedience is a reflection of our gratitude to God. Or as I like to say to my own teenagers, “We live our lives as great big ‘thank you notes’ to God.”
Although my interest in this topic is professional, the admissions scandal also hits home at a personal level. My 18-year-old, Nathan, was recently accepted to one of the schools that made headlines. For the last year, my husband, Dave, and I have been praying for God’s will to be done in his college choice (and it is Nathan’s choice, not ours). While it’s tempting to run our own lap in the race of “whose child gets into the more prestigious school,” Dave and I have different priorities and prayers.
Our top prayer for our son’s college experience is that he grows in his faith. Our second most fervent prayer is that college will catalyze relationships—with friends, mentors, and a faith community—that shape him into the man God intends for him to be.
In the end, what matters most for our son is not our effort as parents or even his effort as a student but rather the work of Christ in his life.
Kara Powell, PhD, is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is the co-author, along with Steven Argue, of Growing With: Every Parent's Guide to Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future.
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